The entrepreneur who’s swapped stress for calm.
It’s a Thursday lunchtime and I’m heading to London’s Soho House to meet Michael Acton Smith.
Michael is probably best known as the creator of Moshi Monsters, which started out as a doodle in a coffee shop and is now an online world with over 80 million users. Today Michael is chairman of Mind Candy, founder of Calm.com (the company behind a guided meditation app) and author of Calm: Calm the mind, change the world.
The top floor of Soho House isn’t the calmest of venues to meet the founder of Calm. It’s loud, busy and buzzy. Waiters rush by with trays, the lift throws out a new bunch of people and there’s a constant chatter.
As founder of Mind Candy, Michael’s been at the heart of London’s Silicon Roundabout startup community for many years. It’s a world that’s typified by long working hours, where founders are rarely unplugged from their digital devices.
“Stress was a big part of my journey. I used to get off on the adrenaline rush of being an entrepreneur, putting in 14 to 16 hour days, working weekends, even falling asleep tapping out one final email on the phone. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and check emails from other countries. I took pride in the fact that I was maximising and squeezing productivity out of every single minute,” he says.
Michael found however that this kind of lifestyle was unsustainable. In 2014 he reached breaking point. He’d wake up in the morning feeling more tired than when he went to bed, he suffered from frequent headaches and low energy levels. When he tried to power through it, he ended up feeling worse. Michael realised he wasn’t enjoying work as much as he used to.
“Suddenly this way of life was no longer filling my work with joy. It had flipped into a dull ache,” he says. So he paused to take stock. He then did something he’d never done before — he went away on holiday by himself, to the Austrian mountains. “While away, I dived into mindfulness and meditation. I studied and read books. A lightbulb went on. I realised meditation didn’t need to be a spiritual thing, this was really smart sensible way of looking after our minds. After all, we obsess about our bodies, what about mental fitness?”
Returning from holiday, he felt rejuvenated. He started changing his working life. “I felt more aware. Meditation had sharpened my attention muscle. Now in my everyday life I find I’m able to take more control. Instead of reacting to situations, I respond to them.”
Michael tells me this new approach has given him the ability to make better decisions in work. “I realised checking emails and looking at Twitter while I was falling asleep was not the most sensible thing to do. Being mindful might not be a silver bullet, but it does smooth things out. Having steam come out of your ears doesn’t really achieve much. I now have more control over how I respond.”
Not only have mindfulness and meditation helped him live a calmer life, it’s also opened a business opportunity. Michael tells me that whenever he discovers something he loves, he likes to see if there’s potential to turn that passion into a business.
This is what he’s done with Calm.
‘Relax with calm, a simple mindfulness meditation app featured in the New York Times and Lifehacker, that will bring more clarity, joy, and peace of mind into your life, at work or at home’ — Calm’s description on iTunes.
Michael is still involved with Mind Candy on the creative and ideas side, but he doesn’t run it day to day anymore. That’s freed him up to run Calm with his co-founder Alex Tew. Alex and Michael put the lessons they’ve learned into a book and started a business — Calm.com –that’s produced a mindfulness meditation app. Through Calm, Michael’s on a mission to teach people how they can take control of their lives and understand stress better. He believes the more information we have and the more tools there are at our disposal to reduce our stress, then the happier and healthier our lives can be.
As Chairman of Mind Candy, the entertainment company he founded in 2004, Michael thinks it’s also important that employers take responsibility for employee’s relationship with stress.
“A few years ago health problems around stress were seen as soft and frivolous. Now companies realise that stress generally impacts the bottom line in a major way. It leads to increased sickness days and lower productivity. It’s why companies are introducing yoga classes and bringing in mindfulness coaches.”
Michael believes an office environment can help reduce stress levels. “It amazes me how so many companies have similar uninspiring spaces, the same horrific carpets and harsh lighting. People spend the majority of their time in these spaces and we expect them to be happy and healthy, but we don’t give them the right cues.”
At Mind Candy, the office design features greenery, colourful walls, natural light and outdoor space. The company also offers classes in mindfulness and pilates. His Calm app has now had four million downloads and the team is getting great feedback from users.
This year Michael is looking to develop a community around Calm, where people can get together both offline and online to share their experiences. He’s planning to spend more time in California where the Calm team is based. The U.S. west coast is not just the centre of the tech world, but also the centre of a new movement around mindfulness.
Amidst the ongoing hustle and bustle at Soho House, we’re joined by a friend of Michael’s. Mark Adams is Senior Vice President and Head of Innovation at the global media company VICE. Mark tells us he uses Michael’s app to help him stay calm. Mark explains he is trying to be much more mindful about when he’s tired, when he needs to eat, and when he needs to say no to things.
“I had a bunch of meetings this afternoon and I decided to cancel all of them. It’s just about knowing when to say ‘no’. I think dealing with stress is the next stage of our evolution,” adds Mark, “If we can’t crack psychological health, we’ve got a big problem.”
Michael agrees and cites a report that says that three quarters of doctor visits are caused by stress: everything from insomnia to low sex drive.
“We assume that stress is just part of modern life. That’s why I’m so passionate about teaching people ways they can take control of their lives and understand stress better,” he says.“Stress is not necessarily a bad thing,” he adds. “Stress is something that when harnessed correctly and used mindfully is what drives the human race forward.”
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